AT&T Samsung Galaxy S4 Active Review

This year, we’re beginning to see a trend where waterproof phones that fit the active lifestyle are coming with specs that are worthy of a flagship phone, and the Galaxy S4 Active from Samsung, an AT&T exclusive, is no different. Samsung is really diversifying the Galaxy S line, with the Galaxy S4 being the flagship of the family offering the best specs. The Galaxy S4 Active brings many of those specs in a waterproof and dustproof body that’s just only slightly thicker, wider, and taller than the non-Active variety. You still get the best innovations from Samsung, and you’re able to take this device with you to the beach, while snorkeling or kayaking, or use it in humid conditions without worrying that your phone may get water damaged.

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Design:

The design of the phone is largely similar to the Galaxy S4. The model that we tested comes in teal blue with charcoal grey accents. You do see Samsung trying to highlight elements of the phone’s ruggedness with what looks to be exposed-looking bolts on the corners of the device on the rear side. It’s a subtle industrial look, but one that doesn’t add weight or heft to the device and allows the Active model to keep a slim and thin profile.

Part of the reason Samsung’s able to maintain thinness is that though the Galaxy S4 Active is a waterproof device, it’s not a rugged one. This means it can withstand being submerged in water for 30 minutes at a time for up to a depth of 1 meter, but don’t expect to drop the device onto hard pavement.

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Hardware:

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On the front, you have a 5-inch full HD 1080p display. Rather than the excellent HD Super AMOLED panel on the flagship, the Active makes due with a great LCD panel. Viewing angles were a bit more narrow on the LCD panel, and though the screen seems just as bright indoors, it does look just slightly more washed out under direct sunlight. It’s not a big deal, but I still prefer the HD Super AMOLED screen on the non-Active Galaxy S4, which is also available on AT&T’s network as well as all its major rival carriers.

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The LCD panel also continues to support Samsung’s new “High touch sensitivity” mode, which allows users to still manipulate the screen when using gloves, which is good for taking the Galaxy S4 Active with you in the snow this winter for those who like to ski or snowboard.

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Just below the screen, you now have three physical Android navigation keys, rather than the single home button flanked on either side by a capacitive touch button. This is an important design change as it is nearly impossible to operate the capacitive touchscreen itself if it’s wet, and we’ll talk more about the usability of the device in a later section.

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The buttons are for menu, home, and back, similar to what Samsung’s been doing for its smartphones and tablets in the last year or so.

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You have a 2-megapixel front camera for underwater selfies and video conferencing using Google Hangouts or another app, priximity and light sensors, and an IR sensor for controlling the Galaxy S4 Active with gestures, along with an earpiece speaker on the top. It’s largely similar to the Galaxy S4, and we recommend you checking out our standard Galaxy S4 review to learn more about the gestures that are enabled via TouchWiz.

On the left hand side, you have the volume rocker button.

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The top has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Though the headphone jack is exposed–there aren’t any seals or covering–it is treated so that you can submerge the Active under water and not damage the device.

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On the right hand side is the power button.

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And on the bottom center, you have the micro USB charge and sync port. Different from the Galaxy S4 is that the Active version has a rubber flap that you must peel open to insert your micro USB cable. The rubber flap helps to create a water-tight seal for underwater use.

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While it’s not a big deal, it can get annoying if you charge your phone a lot, and without wireless charging capabilities like the flagship model, you’ll be fumbling with this flap a lot. Just be sure to completely close the port with the rubber flap when using the device in wet conditions, else your phone may suffer water damage.

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On the rear, despite a waterproof rating, the Galaxy S4 Active does have a removable back battery cover. Unlike the regular Galaxy S4, underneath the cover, you’ll see some rubber gaskets to help keep things water-tight. Underneath here, you’ll find the same Galaxy S4 battery, a micro USB and micro SIM slot.

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AT&T recommends you not only close the battery cover by going over the edges carefully to make sure everything is sealed, but to also press on the AT&T globe logo in the center rear to make sure that the center portion is also sealed. Not doing this last step can risk water entering the phone through the middle port, which is where the camera is housed.

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On the rear, you have a camera pod that houses an 8-megapixel sensor, the same sensor that is on the Galaxy S3 and unfortunately not the 13-megapixel variety on the Galaxy S4 or the competing waterproof Sony Xperia Z on T-Mobile. We’ll cover more about the camera in a later section in this review.

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Performance & Software Features

Largely, you’ll get similar performance using this waterproof model as you would on the non-Active Galaxy S4 flagship. Both models sport a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, 2 GB of RAM, and TouchWiz on top of Android 4.2.2.

Samsung continues to add additional features and customizations onto stock Android, such as the ability to pause video when you’re looking away from the display, controlling your phone with motions and gestures, Air View, Multi window for simultaneous multitasking, and more. All the features–some useful and others superfluous–from the Galaxy S4 is present on the Active, which isn’t surprising since both models run essentially the same guts.

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Wet and Active

One of the big draws of the Galaxy S4 Active is that it has a waterproof camera that you can take with you everywhere. Considering that many consumers are now using their smartphones for everything, including as a photographic tool, the Galaxy S4 Active allows users to extend that experience when they’re by the pool, at the beach, or doing more active tasks, as its name implies, like jet skiing, kayaking, swimming, snowboarding. Theoretically, the device should be able to handle those with mild butterfingers for the occasional spills and dunks, as well as for those who have a wet and wild lifestyle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn use though, if you’re using the Galaxy S4 Active for the active part of your wet and wild lifestyle, performance will vary. I’ve tested three different units in the last few weeks, and have found varying issues with each unit, so it’s unclear if there are variants to the build quality and performance of each device, or if it was just my isolated personal experiences. None of these issues, however, affected the Galaxy S4 Active when used as a normal smartphone operating in dry land conditions, but they were annoying enough when I took the device to the pool at my hotel in Detroit, Michigan, or while using the phone while kayaking along the California Central Coast.

Part of the reason is that the touchscreen is virtually impossible to operate when wet. This is a problem as there is no dedicated shutter button or hardware button to quickly launch the camera, meaning you’d have to turn on the phone, unlock the device, and navigate to the camera app via the touchscreen when you may have wet fingers or while the phone is still slightly wet from having been exposed to water, which was the case when I was in the pool and kayaking,

Of the three units I had, two performed fine with a semi-wet display while one of the units did not respond whatsoever with any presence of water or water droplets on the screen. When I was in the pool, it wasn’t such a big issue as I kept a towel by the pool’s edge to quickly wipe my hands and the screen dry. Kayaking, however, was a different story as my nylon board shorts did not seem to absorb enough water for the screen to be operable on the one fickle unit, but two of the other units weren’t as sensitive to water and seemed to work better, allowing me to quickly unlock the device and swipe my way to the camera app to launch it.

When using the unit with the more water-sensitive display, it was frustrating when I was outside of a controlled pool setting. There were opportunities to photograph select wildlife, like sea otters that came close to my vessel, but it took me roughly 10 minutes to finally be able to unlock that particular phone and by that time the otter had gone far enough into the distance that the shot was not as exciting anymore.

Because the screen wouldn't work when wet, and I had no way to dry the screen on the kayak, I wasn't able to activate the camera. By the time I could activate the camera, this sea otter had already passed on by and was in the distance.

Because the screen wouldn’t work when wet, and I had no way to dry the screen on the kayak, I wasn’t able to activate the camera. By the time I could activate the camera, this sea otter had already passed on by and was in the far distance.

Imagine taking quick dips in the ocean and then coming back to the surface of the sea and try to unlock your phone in between snorkeling takes, and you can see why the Active part of the phone doesn’t live up to its name.

Camera

On land, the 8-megapixel camera produced great shots, and image quality was on par with the Galaxy S3. Images weren’t as detailed as those produced on the Galaxy S4 given that the latter has a higher megapixel count, but the images were still great from the Active version on dry land. You do have access to a number of modes and settings, and the UI is very reminiscent of the interface on the Galaxy S4.

New modes from the Galaxy S4 were present on the Active, like Drama Mode to create a sense of motion in your image, Sound & Shot to add a short sound bite to your photos, Animated Photo to create GIFS, Eraser Mode to remove photobombing, and more. What’s missing is the Dual Shot Mode, which would allow you to either capture photos or videos using both the front- and rear-facing cameras simultaneously.

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What’s new is the Aqua Mode. The mode is essentially an Auto mode for the phone, but the main thing is that every time you enter the mode, the phone prompts you to select if you want to use the volume key as a camera shutter or record key. This is important, as we’ve previously discussed, the touchscreen is inoperable with water, and you can’t activate the camera controls underwater.

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This means that, if you were to take the Galaxy S4 Active snorkeling, for instance, you’ll have to choose if you want to record videos or capture videos before you dive down, and then you’ll have to re-surface and hope the touchscreen will respond if you want to change modes.

And with sunlight shining through the surface of the water, or some artificial lights around the pool, the camera was able to take some good shots under the pool’s surface. The downside is that if you don’t have good natural lighting, you won’t be able to activate the LED flash or use the LED bulb as a video light when in Aqua Mode.

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Another major complaint that I have with the camera while using the Galaxy S4 Active underwater is that photos often were difficult to focus and most of my underwater shots came out blurry or out of focus on all three review units, though the focusing issues weren’t present when dealing with video recording.

Users who switch frequently between capturing images underwater and above water should also remember to wipe the lens dry when using the phone above water, as water residue from switching from wet to land environments could cause a haze or blur in the resulting images.

There are certainly limitations to the camera and the performance of the device under or near water, but you’ll quickly discover them and learn either to work around them or just accept the shortcomings of the Galaxy S4 Active and use the device like a normal Galaxy S4.

Sample Images (Above Water)

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Panorama captured with Galaxy S4 Active

Panorama captured with Galaxy S4 Active

Sample Underwater, Active, or Near Water Images

These images highlight the performance of the Galaxy S4 Active both underwater and above water after the device has been under water. Unfortunately, as I don’t have children or pets, you’ll have to see images of me in the following shots.

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Unfortunately, in Aqua Mode, users cannot activate the LED flash for the camera nor use the LED as a video light in video recording mode. This means that videos and photos captured must be done using natural, available light.

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If you dip the camera in water and then try to take a picture above water, make sure you give the lens a good wipe down, else residual water on the lens could cause haze or blur to your image.

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Focusing for still images proved to be difficult for all 3 of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Active review units that we had obtained at GottaBeMobile. Video focusing seemed to be less challenging for the camera sensor, however.

Sample Underwater Video

Battery Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABattery life for the Galaxy S4 Active was on the high side given the specs of the phone. You do have the same capacious battery as that on the Galaxy S4, so users who own both phones can swap batteries easily. The removable battery really comes in handy for those who use the camera a lot, as constant use of the camera in video or photo mode could quickly deplete the battery. Here, you can just swap out batteries, which is great if you’re out in the middle of the forest with this device camping and have no power outlets to recharge, or are stuck in the middle of the ocean on a long kayaking adventure.

In real world use, I’d say the Galaxy S4 Active didn’t last as long as the Galaxy S4. You can get through about a day with a single charge while connected to AT&T’s speedy 4G LTE network.

Conclusion

Despite it’s name, the Galaxy S4 Active may not serve as the perfect camera companion for those with active, waterborne lifestyles. That said, the device offers some of the most high-end specs in a very compact, yet waterproof package, making it a great phone still, even for everyday use. If you can manage with some of the quirks of the Galaxy S4 Active, it could become a great backup camera for those with more rugged lifestyles.

I wished the device came with more hardware buttons, mainly a physical camera button so that I can quickly activate the camera without having to rely on the touchscreen to unlock the phone and then launch the camera. If Samsung had implemented the same camera mechanism as that found on Windows Phone 8 on the Samsung ATIV S and ATIV Odyssey, the Galaxy S4 Active may prove to be a better experience when using the camera.

As it stands, the camera seems to be an afterthought for the whole waterproof experience. But if you lived in more humid climates, have butterfingers, or find yourself checking emails and suffering from smartphone withdrawal while relaxing in the hot tub or by the pool, the Galaxy S4 Active is a handy companion. Just be prepared to have a dry towel nearby to wipe down the screen if the device gets wet because as we found out, the screen is impossible to use when there is any water present.

If you’re looking for a phone that’s virtually lifeproof and accident-proof, for those who find themselves dropping their phones often in the water, then the Galaxy S4 Active may be the perfect life companion. Outdoors and rugged users should still consider taking a waterproof point-and-shoot camera with them, as that has a better user experience than the camera on the Galaxy S4 Active.

  

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